Imogen Cunningham (April 12, 1883 – June 23, 1976) was an American photographer known for her botanical photography, nudes, and industrial landscapes. Cunningham was a member of the California-based Group f/64, known for its dedication to the sharp-focus rendition of simple subjects.
Cunningham was born in Portland, Oregon to father Isaac Burns Cunningham and mother Susan Elizabeth Cunningham (née Johnson). Her parents were from Missouri, though both of their families originally came from Virginia. Cunningham was the fifth of 10 children. Although art was not included in the traditional school curriculum, as a child Cunningham took art lessons on weekends and during vacations.
She grew up in Seattle, Washington and attended the Denny School at 5th and Battery Streets in Seattle.
In 1901, at the age of eighteen, Cunningham bought her first camera, a 4×5 inch view camera, via mail order from the American School of Art in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
She entered the University of Washington in 1903, where she became a charter member of the Washington Alpha chapter of Pi Beta Phi fraternity for Women. It was not until 1906, while studying at the University of Washington in Seattle, that she was inspired to take up photography again by an encounter with the work of Gertrude Käsebier. Her first photographs in 1906 were portraits taken with a 4-by-5-inch-format camera. With the help of her chemistry professor, Horace Byers, she began to study the chemistry behind photography while paying for her tuition by photographing plants for the botany department.
In 1907, Cunningham graduated from University of Washington with a degree in chemistry. Her thesis was titled “Modern Processes of Photography.” While there, she served as class vice-president, participated in the German Club and Chemistry Club, and was on the yearbook staff.
In the 1940s, Cunningham turned to documentary street photography, which she executed as a side project while supporting herself with her commercial and studio photography. In 1945, Cunningham was invited by Ansel Adams to accept a position as a faculty member for the art photography department at the California School of Fine Arts. Dorothea Lange and Minor White joined as well.
In 1964, Imogen Cunningham met the photographer Judy Dater while leading a workshop focusing on the life and work of Edward Weston in Big Sur Hot Springs, California which later became the Esalen Institute. Dater was greatly inspired by Cunningham’s life and work. Cunningham is featured in one of Dater’s most popular photographs, Imogen and Twinka at Yosemite, which depicts elderly Cunningham encountering nude model Twinka Thiebaud behind a tree in Yosemite National Park. The two shared an interest in portraiture and remained friends until Cunningham’s death in 1976. Three years later, Dater published Imogen Cunningham: A Portrait, containing interviews with many of Cunningham’s photographic contemporaries, friends, and family along with photographs by both Dater and Cunningham.
In 1973, her work was exhibited at the Rencontres d’Arles photography festival in France through the group exhibition: Trois photographes américaines, Imogen Cunningham, Linda Connor, Judy Dater.
- 1967: Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
- 1968: Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts degree from the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland
- 1970: Guggenheim fellowship in Creative Arts for Photography
- [Unknown year]: Dorothea Lange Award – first recipient
- 2004: Hall of Fame Inductee, International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum
On February 11, 1915, Cunningham married etching artist, printmaker and teacher Roi Partridge. They had three sons: Gryffyd Partridge and twins Rondal Partridge and Padriac Partridge. The couple divorced in 1934. Rondal’s daughter, Meg Partridge, cataloged Cunningham’s work.
As of 1940, Cunningham lived in Oakland, California, though she had studios in various locations in San Francisco.
Cunningham continued to take photographs until shortly before her death at age 93, on June 23, 1976, in San Francisco, California.
Cunningham was named Imogen after the heroine of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.